THE SECRET OF CAREGIVING
by Dr. Eleanor Hamilton
We once had a domestic employee whose services were impeccable yet whose presence left us uncomfortable. Nothing she cooked tasted really good, though she used our own time-tested recipes and the raw materials we ourselves provided.
She performed her tasks as instructed, yet never in a way that left us feeling "served." Eventually, we asked her to discontinue her employment with us. I am sure that she was as content to go as we were relieved to have her dark and brooding presence out of our lives.
Contrast her with another employee who came in with a smile that radiated warmth from the moment she entered our front door. Every move she made felt good, even though some of those "moves" were not what we had planned or asked for.
What made the difference? The atmosphere in our house was buoyant in the presence of one and somber in the presence of the other. Yet both were competent workers. As I pondered this question, it struck me that there was truly an actual and measurable difference between caretaking and caregiving.
In caretaking, something is taken. In caregiving, something is given. And that something is love, warmth, energy. Today's generation might call these qualities "good energy." Certainly its effect on other human beings and even on the places in which we reside is perceivable.
Most of us have had the experience of walking into some homes that right away "feel good" to us. We want to spend time there. They "give" us something. They embrace us. And then there are other homes that we want to get out of at the earliest possible moment.
The same goes for stores or banks or doctor's offices. Which ones do we gravitate to? And which ones do we stay away from? Those that give off an atmosphere of welcome-those that make us feel that the persons who work there enjoy serving our needs-get our return business. Those that give off an atmosphere of "duty only" on the part of their proprietors we eschew.
Human institutions of every kind-marriage, parenting, partnerships, businesses-are all subject to this exchange of energy. It seems to reduce to pleasurable absorption of someone's joy in giving or to rejection of atmospheres where it is perceived that there is an obsession about getting one's due.
Even hardcore science is taking note of the quality that we have begun to call "positive energy." When a warm and loving and vibrant person leaves a room, we may even say to each other, "The light has gone out of this place." Such positive energy is what seems to differentiate healing people from those who simply "do their duty." We are literally helped to heal ourselves through their presence.
Children are especially sensitive to positive and negative energy in those who provide for their care. I have many times seen children thrive under the care of one nurse and get sick under the care of another, even when the ministrations of the former were not as meticulous as those of the latter.
While technical skill is important, caregiving is apparently not as dependent on the quality of skill of the caregiver as it is on the quality of love that the caregiver has to share.
A classic example of this was in the life of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who lived as a semi-invalid under her father's roof but who emerged as a vibrant young woman when she left her familial home and married her lover Robert Browning.
Over and over, we see children thrive in the classroom of one teacher and fade in the classroom of another. Is one teacher better trained technically than another? I think not. The one who inspires growth and learning is the one who is able to bring love and enthusiasm to the children in her care. She is a caregiver, not a caretaker.
It behooves all of us to be sensitive to the human environment that we accept in our lives. If it is nourishing, we should welcome it with open arms. If it seems to rob us of creativity and enthusiasm, we might be wise to reject it and move on to a more health-giving human environment.
About the author: Dr. Hamilton, a retired psychologist and sex therapist, is the author of five books and a recipient of the American Library Association award. Her television appearances include "The Phil Donahue Show," "The Merv Griffin Show," and "The Tonight Show."